By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:41 PM
The report found that 70 percent of service members thought there would be little or no negative impact to military readiness and unit cohesion if the government were to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military. But no group had such strong - or sharply divergent - views as the military's 3,000 chaplains, who provide spiritual guidance to the men and women in uniform.
The debate highlights the delicate position of the chaplains, who must balance the demands of their faiths with the reality of a diverse military. Their concerns will weigh heavily this month as Congress considers a proposal to lift the 17-year-old policy, supported by some who say it has prevented strife in the ranks but criticized by others as discriminatory and outdated at a time when homosexuality has gained mainstream acceptance.
Officials say they did not encounter objections from chaplains during past efforts to integrate African Americans and women into the military. But homosexuality presents a particular difficulty because many religions object to it on moral grounds.
The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law were changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to a repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.
"In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual," the report stated. "In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that 'we are all sinners,' and that it is a chaplain's duty to care for all Service members."
The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.
"They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me," said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. "It was horrible. Right from the beginning, I was saying, 'This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.' "
To other ministers, however, lifting the policy would in effect condone a lifestyle that their faith considers sinful. Among the most high-profile opponents to the change has been the Catholic Church. About 20 percent of the military is Catholic. In July, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services compared the policy to Alcoholics Anonymous.
"Like homosexuality, there is rarely a cure," he said in a statement. "There is a control through a process, which is guarded by absolute secrecy."
The report's authors wrote that the opposition was not insurmountable, arguing that "the reality is that in today's U.S. military, people of sharply different moral values and religious convictions - including those who believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and those who do not - and those who have no religious convictions at all, already co-exist, work, live and fight together on a daily basis."
The assertion drew a sharp rebuke from Christian groups, including the Family Research Council, which on Wednesday held a news conference to highlight findings in the report that they say argue against changing the policy.
Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Army chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior.
"There's a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn't be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you," he said. "If there's no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops."
Those who advocate in favor of repeal say that the ranks of chaplains are much more conservative than the rank and file and that their opinions should not prevent a change in policy.
"The U.S. military is not a religious institution. It is a civilian government organization," said the Rev. John Gundlach, a retired captain and Navy chaplain. "My position on this is, if they can't handle this change, they're in the wrong ministry setting."
Staff writer Elizabeth Tenety contributed to this report.